Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Castle

We made it! We made it inside the castle! After three months of riding past its enormous stone foundations and walking past its many closed doorways, we walked inside the castle keep, the lush gardens, and (yes!) the castle itself. The Duchess (who lives on the second floor of the castle with Monsieur le Duc) organized an Easter Egg Hunt and so we were there right as the gates opened, ready to hunt and be amazed.

And amazed we were. The castle grounds are huge and filled with surprises. It seemed that there were more trees in bloom here than anywhere else in Josselin , and the castle grounds certainly have the biggest stretch of land all around. Indeed, since the 11th century, it's been good to be the duke!

There are two gardens: an English garden, where you can find the beautiful waterfall above, which is given over to big expanses of green and curving paths and a kind of generally unfurling Nature. I started when the kids walked on the grass, my Paris training of "Ne Marchez Pas sur la Pelouse" (Do not walk on the grass) kicking in - but, no, here you can run upon the grass! The earth was still soft from yesterday's rains, and the smells of the many blooms were wonderful - the kids just ran and ran. Look! you can't even see that there's a whole medieval city grouped around this park!

The other garden is a French garden, manicured and stately and, in this section, soon enough to bloom with lots and lots of roses. We found out at the front door, from a woman we later realized might well have been Madame la Duchesse herself, that the people of Josselin always get in for free. Even though we're only of the people of Josselin for six months, we count, too! - which is really sweet and lovely. Indeed, we saw several of Oliver's classmates there this afternoon, and one of Eleanor's, a beautiful little boy whose father we call "le père distingué" because he's so distinguished looking (about once a month he comes in to pick up his kids in a gorgeous three-piece suit, too - mystère!). Spring really is cool - new places and spaces literally open up for meeting up.

So when we walked in, we were handed a clipboard with a two-sided form and told to fill it out for a chocolate reward at the end. And you know what? The Duchess's scavenger hunt was no walk in the park! (Actually, uh wait, it was.) Meaning, we had to really hunt for some of those answers. There were huge wooden egg boards placed all around the grounds with nifty information about Easter and chocolate, little jokes and riddles. And then there were also clues left everywhere that helped you put together the answers to different questions of the form. I found out this way that it was only in 1984 (living memory for me) that the stables were turned into the current Musée de la Poupée (Museum of the Doll - which we didn't visit today, but will soon enough!), and that what makes a tart made with eggs taste good is the zest of a lemon. The kids had varying degrees of confusion in their response to it all: Iris had envisioned herself hunting eggs and putting them into a basket, and Oliver kept wondering why there was "an intellectual element" as he called it, to the proceedings. Eleanor just ran around until she was too tired to stand and then promptly fell asleep in her dad's arms. So yes, it was more of a scavenger hunt for answers than a collect-them-all egg hunt but Iris cracked me up by shrugging her shoulders and saying "Looks like I gotta go with the flow." Thank you, Iris!

And then... the castle! The two shots I'll show today are from the outside, since you can't take any on the inside because it's still a private residence. You visit three big rooms and their adjoining ante-chambers on the first floors, but it's a full 45 minute visit - lots to talk about! As much as the architecture is 15th century, the castle interior, and much of the restoration of the 16th century inner façade is 19th century (by someone trained under Viollet-le-Duc actually). It's a rare glimpse into a 19th century aristocratic family's dream/return of not the feudal period, exactly, but certainly a time when the aristocracy was recognized as such. Now, you could call me naïve here, and say that this was not a return or a dream at all, that in fact, despite the upheavals of the French Revolution there was great continuity for the aristocratic classes after the Revolution: many of them found their castles and properties again and simply carried on. But there's a heaviness to the traditions that are enacted in the 19th century that to me belies a kind of emphatic nostalgia, a kind of "it was, too, like this" quality. They planted a sequoia tree in the courtyard before the inner façade (which is today 150 years old - you can see it to the far left of the first picture today); they continue to name the first sons of the family Alain or Josselin, and the first girls Marguerite; and, most emphatically, the dining room has everyone's name written in gold lettering all around the room, crowned by the coats of arm showing the extent of the inter-marriages of the royal family. Pre-French Revolution this would be just the way things are; post-Revolution it seems dreamlike (think of our dubbing JFK's White House "Camelot"). But then, what were they to do? Entirely give up on the dream? When I see the portrait of the grandfather of the current duke in his WWI uniform (and when I know that he perished in that war as a captain - as it commemorated on the column in the Promenade), then I have to humbly admire how this family has modernized itself. There's much more here, but for now suffice it to say that it's fascinating to be in a castle which was furnished in the 19th century by a family still dubbing itself very aristocratic and whose dream of perpetuating the ease and grandeur of this way of life is the reality we visit today.

All this to say that if you read "APLUS" in the Renaissance stonework above, you were correct: that's the motto of the Rohans. Oh how dearly I would love to find a book of "devise" (mottos) of royal families - the few that I know are all so cool (I love "honi soit qui mal y pense" - cursed be he who thinks ill of it - it being the emblem, the family).

Here you see not only the ermine tails of Brittany (which all of Anne de Bretagne's coat of arms have made famous and which now show up on every Breton souvenir), but also the actually ermines themselves - they're the little weasel-like creatures running along the top of the stonework. Lovely, yes? Anne de Bretagne was associated with this place, as was Henry IV whose first cousin was a Rohan. Ah! But I must tell you that the long-awaited sighting of the Table Upon Which the Edict of Nantes was signed was not too be. Our lovely tour guide told us that that had been a flourish added on by an earlier generation of tour guides and that "Madame la Duchesse" does not allow such fictions. So, now I have to wonder if that table is anywhere around at all. Highly unlikely, but one can still dream. There are some terrific old photographs in the entrance space of the castle ground showing scenes like the Duke and Duchess receiving penitents during the Josselin Pardon in September. I would actually be really interested to track the relationship between the aristocratic family and the town after the Revolution. Another chapter.

Mac awaits for another rousing session of Le Combat des Trentes board game, so I'll need to go which means that I won't get to show you the Resurrection paintings we showed the kids today - well, they involved Jesus's feet ascending into Heaven in any case, which really got some good conversations going!

1 comment:

  1. How frustrating...I keep getting an error message when I try to post a comment to you...the one for this entry was long and wistful...but just to recap: you made the past come alive with pen paper and photos; can I become a member of your family (ex officio); there is an intellectual element in tarts...tell Oliver I will pass on the secret when I see him. What a gift this blog is!